SATURDAY APRIL 29, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
JOSEPH MIMRAN
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The current chair of the Fashion Design Council of Canada; an acclaimed urban trendsetter with not one but two lines in a primarily suburban supermarket chain; and a high-profile branding wizard who has never inscribed his name to those brands ... until now.

Joseph Mimran has been hitting it out of the park for more than 25 years, with a style both classic and yet inimitably his own. His list of successes is well established: Alfred Sung, Club Monaco, Caban – and also the 1999 windfall sale of both Caban and Club Monaco to Polo Ralph Lauren for $52.5 million.

He currently runs Joseph Mimran and Associates, a consulting firm that provides design, product development, and branding expertise – and has contributed to fashion lines Pink Tartan and Tevrow + Chase with his wife, designer Kimberley Newport-Mimran. He’s also the man behind Joe Fresh Style, the high concept/low cost apparel line available within 45 Loblaw Superstores across Canada.

TORO recently caught up with Joseph Mimran at his downtown Toronto office to discuss design, business, creativity, and the mysterious manner in which thoughts materialize.

Q: Of all the brands you’ve launched, Joe Fresh Style is the only one that incorporates your name into the line. Tell me the thinking behind this and also why this particular brand is the only “namesake” among the many you’ve developed.
A: It was really very deliberate. One of my concerns in putting out the line was, how do you give the line instant credibility. If it appears to be a private label line, especially coming out of a supermarket, it’s hard to build credibility. It was a tough choice because this is exclusively for Loblaws and they do own the business, so attaching my name to it was quite a decision. But a lot of it had to do with the history that Loblaws has in developing private brands and the understanding that they have in maintaining the credibility of a brand. So they got it and I felt comfortable doing it. And it jump-started it. This was no longer just a name. It was coming from a background where we know how to make it happen, we know how to put it together.

It’s been interesting. It’s kind of spun things a little differently. Press really do like to have a face or name, and to relate it to a person. It’s not so much the consuming public. It really is the press and the people in the know because they’re the ones that end up influencing the consumer so much. And so there’s that element to it.

Q: Although the Joe Fresh Style brand must, I assume, stay within Canada (linked as it is to Loblaws) is the concept itself novel enough to gain international recognition?
A: It’s not novel in the U.K. They do it in the U.K. and have done it there for the last 15 years. George Davies, who started Next (and was a great force with it in the late-´80s and early-´90s) gave his name to the George brand which became this huge brand, and it was in a supermarket, and it ended up becoming an incredible powerhouse. So it’s not unique in the U.K. It is more unique certainly in the States – it hasn’t happened there, and it hasn’t happened in a lot of other countries around the world. When I think about it, though, what’s important is not necessarily where it’s sold as much as the integrity of the product itself and the execution. Does it hold up? Does the product hold up and is the value proposition there? That’s really the key question.

Q: As an aside, my wife cannot stop buying the Joe Fresh Style kids line for our two-year-old daughter. In fact, she’s blown away by the chic simple designs and the incredible prices.
A: It’s a fraction of the price. And I can tell you that the product is made in many of the same factories that you would buy other brands that you and I both know, that would sell for three or four or five times the price.

Q: So what’s the trick of getting quality apparel to that value point?
A: Well, I think that the secret is really in the editing. It’s in the know-how. Everything is available today. There is nothing that’s not available. You know, there’s a million furniture stores, there’s a million designers – but how do you put it together? How, with all the choice, do you stand out. Sometimes too much choice becomes more difficult, more challenging. How do you take all that and differentiate yourself from your competitors? And a lot of it is in the editing. It’s in the ability to say, “No, no, no, no ... yes.” And you’ve got to be able to do it quickly. This is not like a dress that you spend three weeks creating. We’ve got to move a lot of design, a lot of product, and we’ve got to move it quickly, and by the same token it’s got to hold up. Because I hear it from so many people, whether it’s your wife or somebody’s neighbour who I get stories from, or even that blogs that I’m alerted to every day. It resonates all the time. You can’t do 10 per cent of the job and stay in business. It’s got to be 99 per cent of the time that you’ve got to hit it right.

Q: I completely understand how Joe Fresh Style targets moms in their mid-30s. Having said that, there is also a men’s line and I’m curious to know what that target audience is and how it’s envisioned that men will connect with/encounter the line.
A: Well, the men’s line is very different. In the supermarkets, men only represent 20 per cent of the customers that come by. So you don’t have the space to tell a full-fledged fashion story. You may not have the right mix of customers, because you essentially are captive to the customers that are shopping for food. So whatever that demographic might be – well, you have to be very careful how you do a men’s line in this context. So one of the things that we’ve really tried to emphasize with the men’s line of Joe Fresh Style, is just to strip it right back and offer a pure product. Don’t over embellish anything, don’t try too hard, don’t scare the men from a fashion standpoint – just make it very accessible. Make it a quintessential peacoat for 79 bucks.

And I can tell you that our down coat for example, and our peacoat too, they’re exceptional products. It’s actually hard – in fact, you’ll pay more – for a stripped-down coat from a designer if you just wanted a beautiful, simple item. The only people doing it are X and Y – and it’s a 1,000 bucks or 800 bucks. Well, guess what? Now you can buy it for $79 or $89. And the quality is almost the same. Because with the men’s game, quality is a very big aspect, and it’s usually in the fabrications because I cannot duplicate, for example, a beautiful wool – a 100 per cent, twisted, fine wool. I just can’t duplicate that at a low cost, because so much of that is in the actual fabric itself. But with nylons I can. With a hard-wearing wool for a peacoat I can. So I stay to the places and I pick the spots, where I can compete. It goes back to editing again.

Q: Was there an epiphanic moment when you were considering just how exactly to create the aesthetic for this line? I’ve talked to several designers recently – and they’ve all had variations on stories where the vision for what they’re trying to create hits them like a bolt out of the blue.
A: It was really a fresh thought and it was a new idea. And the challenge was how do you make it appealing within the environment. It certainly couldn’t be an all-black apparel line – you’re in a food store. So the first thing it had to be, it had to feel a little happier. The colours, the tones – it had to be a little fresher. It’s got to cut across cultural barriers across Canada. It’s got to cross not just demographics, but social demographics: a person who’s earning $200,000 a year versus a person who’s earning $30,000 a year. It had to do a lot of things and still feel very appealing. So I had to take all of that and say okay, well this is what the fixturing should look like. It should be all stainless steel. It should be very transparent. It’s got to take wear and tear from shopping carts. It’s got to be hanging, because we don’t have the ability to put staff in there. There will be a very low price, so there’s also a ton of turnover – and it’s got to be hanging otherwise the place would be a mess with piles of clothes everywhere.

Q: You´ve designed for a broad range over the course of your career. The apparel, the houseware line for President’s Choice and with Alfred Sung the merchandising with glasses, fragrance, and various licensed products. Are you interested in moving more into industrial design?
A: Well, we do it for President’s Choice – we do all the home products. And it is appealing when I have a project that allows me to design an item from scratch. We were given the challenge of doing a water filtration item and it was fantastic. I always hated the Brita because you bring it to a table and it’s disgusting. So we designed a water vessel that when you take the top off, it’s just a stunning vessel. And it holds up. It’s amazing. And one of the press packages that we did just showed my little hand drawing of what I wanted and then how it went for modeling and also how we refined it. But that part is really the most fun part, when you can sit down and just sketch away and create something new.

Q: Talk to me about the balance between aesthetics and business when it comes to a line like Joe Fresh Style.
A: I can’t think of anything without thinking of the money side of it. Which is weird because you’re either a left- or right-brain person. But when I’m designing something I always think, what’s the mould going to cost? Are we going to be able to actually execute it? And while our businesses are unbelievably creative, they also have to be unbelievably practical – you have to get the stuff manufactured, you have to get it shipped, everything is price, price, price. And then how you organize yourself and set yourself up so that everything is efficient is really, really important.

Q: Now is that as much a pleasure for you as the creative side of the process?
A: No, I hate filing. It’s not my thing. But it’s a necessary evil for me – and I’ve been interested in business from the beginning. And I’ve always said that good design is good business. And good business is good design. I think they go hand in hand. And in today’s world, even more so. I’ve never seen a time where people are so interested in design. You take a look at the car industry, and how the car industry has failed in the United States. And you can speak to anybody about it on the street as well and they’ll tell you quite simply: they don’t drive as well, they don’t look as good, they’re kind of weird. It’s interesting to me how design is playing such a critical role in the success of companies today.

Q: There’s a theory that anyone who is a world-class expert or success needs many, many years and thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. What’s your thought on this and how/where did you get your practise?
A: In 1976, my mother and my brother started a dress business which I joined six months in, and I learned the business from the ground up. I did the books. But I was really joining it as an entrepreneur, and I learned everything from fixing the sewing machines to spreading fabric to having to worry about how a dress would drape or not drape and what fabrics would work or not work. When you manufacture a product, there is nothing that will compare in terms of building a knowledge base than actually having done it – having actually manufactured a product. Once you know how to make something, you learn it. Now it also depends on the quality of the learning. I’ll never forget the time I interviewed a presser. He said, “I have 20 years pressing.” I said, “Okay, let’s see how you press.” So he started to press for me. And I said, “No, you have one year of experience – 20 times over.”

Q: That’s good. I agree that innate talent has to be there – along with the drive to distinguish oneself.
A: And I think the other thing is that you have to challenge yourself to keep moving forward. When we first started in business, we looked around the Canadian marketplace and said, “Okay, who’s the best at manufacturing?” We picked our competition and all of a sudden, we’re as big as they are and we’re as good as they are. Okay, now you look around the international market. And that’s how you up your game each time. And in the apparel business and in the retail business, there is always someone to look at who’s doing it bigger and better. I think that’s where the biggest companies in the world always run up against the wall, because they’re being chased, and it’s easier to be number two. With Club Monaco we did it in Canada and then immediately wanted to branch out to other countries. And New York was a huge test for us. And then we were in Korea, we were in Japan. And that was great. It was great to be able to succeed internationally.

Q: If you achieve a certain level of success – with a brand, a magazine, anything really – there is always the chance that a giant corporation will swoop down and attempt to purchase your “baby.” How did that unfold from your own direct experience with Club Monaco?
A: It totally came out of the blue. When I got the call, it was from the vice chairman of the Polo corporation worldwide. And he said, “We really like what you’re doing. We think the concept is great.” And I said, “Oh, fantastic. Thank you very much.” He said, “You know, we should really get together.” And I said, “Well, next time I’m in New York, I’ll give you a call.” I thought he was just being very complimentary and simply paying a professional courtesy. And then he said, “No, no, no – I’d like to fly up to Toronto and meet with you and talk about this.” And then all of a sudden the light bulb went on. But it’s still hard to imagine that Polo, one of the greatest brands in the world, wanted to buy our brand. And they’d never bought a brand. And to choose ours out of all the countless apparel brands in the world. It’s quite a compliment. And you get fascinated by that. And fascinated by the money. And so we considered it and said, “Okay, the money’s great. Let’s do it.”

Q: And was there ever the feeling of giving up the baby?
A: Well, I’m a little more practical than that. And we were public twice, we were private twice. We had other businesses. It’s not like it was my only thing in life or the only thing that I ever wanted to do. But in hindsight you think about it and you say, “You know, had I kept it, where would it be today? What would I be doing today? How would it evolve?” And so you do think about those things. But then I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. And others that have come along.

Q: It’s good to be in a position to act upon ideas, to be on the forward edge of that dynamic.
A: I was reading a book the other day, and the author suggested the idea that the brain could only hold a limited amount of memory, like a CPU, was flawed. Really, our thoughts don’t reside in our brain. Our thoughts are outside our brain. And when we try to recall something, and it’s not materializing, we’re really just going out there and lassoing it and bringing it back whenever we need it. And it really makes sense when you think about the zeitgeist. How is it that somebody will have the exact same concept at the exact same time 5,000 miles away? I think these thoughts are thrown out into the air and people lasso them. So it’s really just the art of lassoing those thoughts.

William Morassutti is the co-founder and Executive Producer of toromagazine.com. He was one of the founding members of TORO Magazine, where he served as both Editorial Director and Executive Director. Prior to joining TORO, he worked in Canadian broadcasting as a writer, producer, director, reporter and host.

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